A Monstrous Metaphor Fished from Walden Pond

If Walden, the pond, as Thoreau tells us (“The Ponds” chapter), sports some, but not many, fish, “…pickerel…perch and pouts…breams, and a couple of eels. Nevertheless, this pond is not very fertile in fish” (174), Walden, the book, is well stocked with metaphorical fish; some, when pulled to the surface, monstrous tropes: “A lake…is earth’s eye…The fluviatile [of a river] trees next the shore are the slender eyelashes which fringe it, and the wooded hills and cliffs around are its overhanging brows” (176). Thus we see the earth as a Cyclops, a one-eyed monster, the eye stretched into an imperfect circle, trees for lashes and eyebrows, hills for forehead. And the eye, at a certain time of the day, the sun, another eye, gazing into its waters, contains fluid a kind of “molten glass cooled but not congealed” (177). The picture we see here is not the standard product of the bucolic water-colorist; more like a Salvador Dali painting.

The face of the earth is dotted with these Cyclopes, but these eyes are protected against blindness, as Thoreau explains in yet another figurative device, the riddle, which he uses to sieve his pond. What is a mirror which no stone can crack? He gives us the answer: “[The lake] is a mirror which no stone can crack” (178).

Yet we’ve already been introduced to the lake as a mouth, so now we’ve to add a mouth to our Cyclops’s eye: “By this fluctuation the pond asserts its title to a shore, and thus the shore is shorn, and the trees cannot hold it by right of possession. These are the lips of the lake on which no beard grows. It licks its chaps from time to time” (172). What a face!

The metaphorical mouth surrounds the eye-trope, the eye sits in the mouth, and the eye is sometimes blue, but often, in places, “of a yellowish tint,” or again, “vivid green…verdure…Such is the color of its iris.” (167). And at the bottom of this eye, “logs…like huge water snakes in motion” (188).

Thoreau finishes “The Ponds” chapter with a metaphorical flourish: “Nature has no human inhabitant who appreciates her” (188). No doubt.

Related:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

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